Masiyaleti Mbewe spoke with artist Julia Nakashwa Hango (JuliART) about ‘bodily autonomy’ and the freedom of taking her art to the streets. 

“There is power in looking.” – bell hooks

At the corner of Robert Mugabe Avenue and John Meinert Street, two colonial structures meet; the first is the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN) and the second, the National Theatre. It is at this junction that twenty-six-year-old artist, body positivity and LGBTQAI+ activist Julia Nakashwa Hango also known as JuliARTperformed her startlingly important piece “I AM HUMAN” as part of the Operation *Odalate Naiteke project. The project was organized and curated in part by artist, educator and writer Nashilongweshipwe Jacques Mushaandja. Images of the performance were captured by photographer Vilho Nuumbala Nuyoma and circulated around social media after the fact and, while some Namibians viewed JuliART’s performance as “undignified” and “grotesque”, those responses are indicative of the complex, gendered and racialized dissection of Black womxn and their bodies. This historically colonial gaze is something JuliART examines, challenges and resists in her art head-on because she presents her work while she’s in the nude. ‘JuliART’s practice is body-based meaning she works in, with and through her body’ Mushaandja says. ‘African performances operate from this impulse. If we are speaking of African praxis in contemporary art and performance, her work which is signified by play and protest, relates to the long African feminist heritage such as nude protest by women across the continent.’ 

Born in the Namibian capital Windhoek, JuliART’s story details a difficult childhood followed by a small start in the city as an event photographer. Feelings of anxiety and fear led her to leave that job. It was then, in 2016, that she started working and interacting with her body and her art in intimate and brave ways. ‘I use the work as a healing and release agent for myself, my inhibitions, binds and ties, my limited belief systems and a desire to uncover all the bits of me that lay underneath the clothing limit,’ she says. 

Her art is based on concepts of untethering; the act of recalibrating and redefining “the gaze.” In 2015’s Black Women’s Bodies and The Nation: Race, Gender and Culture, sociologist Shirley Anne Tate writes, “Our attention on Black women’s bodies necessitates a focus on the gendering, ageing, heterosexualizing, classing, abling and race-ing of body discourses, discursive positionings and body regulation … The white colonial gaze homogenizes Black women’s bodies as it dissects and inscribes its own meanings of racialized otherness.” This purposeful shifting of the artwork, its performance and how it is viewed has been interrogated by JuliART over time. ‘In the past, anywhere that would showcase my work was enough but now I’ve become a lot more conscious,’ she says. ‘I deliberate when choosing a space. I am in the process of bringing the art to the street because I believe this is where the change can happen. This is the audience I want for my art. I am no longer exhibiting in galleries and indoor spaces in Namibia. My art now belongs to the people.’

‘I’ve been told where my art does and does not belong. I’ve had a man scream at me during my performance that I should be ashamed of using my body in this way …’

Work as controversial and disruptive as JuliART’s has been a catalyst for discussions around censorship in Namibian art. The strong reactions people have had to her performance highlight the deep-rooted misogynoir imbedded in Namibian culture. Mushaandja expands on this fact and says, ‘the dialogue that my work enables is made up of productive tensions. The strong reactions come from a place that signals the lack of open discussions about joy, pleasure, bodily and sexual autonomy. This is because they are often overshadowed by shame, self-hate and violence.’

JuliART’s work is quite brazenly a confrontation of all of these issues, and by disregarding the white gaze, she is able to hold a mirror up to Namibian society and its long-standing hang-ups with Black womxn and their freedom. So, is there space for constructive criticism for art the nature of JuliART’s? She speaks on this and says, ‘I’ve been told where my art does and does not belong. I’ve had a man scream at me during my performance that I should be ashamed of using my body in this way so honestly, I don’t care much about the critiques anymore. What I do is spirit driven in purpose; I create the art anyway and risk it being called obscure and disgusting.’ 

Still on the subject of critique, Mushaandja gave the following perspective, ‘We must definitely make sure that there are ethics of debate as we engage work of this nature. Engagement must be of a critical gesture that comes from a place of care. Those who are aggressive and violent in their responses to the work must be held accountable.’ 

In the collection of work by philosopher George Yancy titled Black Bodies, White Gazes, Yancy states, “The history of Black resistance is a complex narrative, particularly as this history is tied to the context of a white racist episteme, which is a way of organizing the world politically, economically, and metaphysically. After all, it is the dominant white culture’s view that Black people have no role to play in “the world of meaning as meaning-makers.” That is not a claim that has only political implications, but one that has metaphysical implications; it is a claim that speaks to the Black body’s “nature” as being ontologically “insignificant,” “subhuman,” removed from the realm of semiotic and symbolic.” Yancy gestures to the almost blood-lusty way the white gaze inserts its perspective in Black art and its definition, because JuliART uses her Black body to present her art, she undermines this [white gaze]. ‘The body. This vessel we all inhabit, what it feels, how it is and how it can exist through space and time, that is how my art, my activism and my sex-positive work merge. Our bodily autonomy,’ she says. 

The future of African art is often unpacked in the context of being an ongoing decolonial process that will be consciously implemented by African artists. JuliART speaks about how her art is made in an effort to destabilize the current oppressive cis-heteronormative white supremacist systems. ‘A part of me wants to romanticize the future of how art will deconstruct the multitudes of oppressions around the naked body, especially Black women’s and Black queer bodies but, if I am being honest, I don’t know what the future holds. I want to live in a world where nudity is decolonised and is normalised and accepted as an important part of expressing one’s self with no harm attached to it; a world in which we don’t need to create art because of the struggles we experience; a world where art is not fetishized behind glass frames on the white elite’s walls; a world where  everything is art; a world where art is not necessarily a reaction to the times we live in, but rather an expression of the spirit and the one consciousness.’

‘I speak from a pansexual, polyamorous perspective because that is how I identify’

While we marvel and form opinions about JuliART’s work, the artist is already working on several new projects as well as producing content for her refreshingly sex positive podcast The Mastubatorium, ‘I have a background in media and radio production and with those skills I am able to produce the podcast and speak on more things that matter to me; topics around sex and stigma. Sometimes my Tantra clients and listeners want me to speak on something specific, so I do some research, record, edit and create artwork for a new episode. This podcast is for everyone interested in sex, sexuality, the body and pleasure. I speak from a pansexual, polyamorous perspective because that is how I identify. I want people to listen to the podcast and walk away with a world’s worth of information about the topic,’ she says. 

For her artwork, JuliART is currently interested in creating more women’s circles in which she can direct her healing powers towards women seeking to discover and balance their feminine and masculine energies.  ‘Wild women who are looking for a space to just be wild,’ she explains. ‘The first one is the upcoming Goddess Space or Cuddle Puddle; a space open to (cis and trans) women as well as non-binary people. We will be healing and supporting one another through touch, hugs and cuddles. And then I am also working on a series of paintings and collage works using images of naked Black women from colonial times, this will be a series that will make use of my body fluids and excretions. This work will be a very important journey for me.’

Despite the backlash and pushback, those wishing to engage with JuliART’s work on an honest level cannot deny how essential it is in the collective process of reclamation of Black art in a post-apartheid Namibia. ‘JuliART’s method of play and playfulness is what weaves these themes together in unique and familiar ways’ states Mushaandja. ‘There is potential and freedom in her work; it is always about what is possible.’

*Odalate Naiteke is a slogan from the nationwide Namibian migrant worker’s protests in the early 1970s. The Odalate Naiteke Project is about radical learning through the forging of public arts, archives and activisms. The project was held in January this year, at the Katutura Community Arts Centre in Windhoek, Namibia. 

All images are from JuliART’s I AM HUMAN performance (photo credits – Vilho Nuumbala)